The Pixel Buds Pro are Google’s latest pair of wireless earbuds. The company’s fourth attempt in this product category is the most expensive and feature-rich one so far. While the initial models got a mixed reception, the company has gotten steadily better at it with each iteration.
The Pixel Buds Pro will undoubtedly be the best ones so far. The question is, is Google’s best good enough in the current competitive market, especially at the $200 asking price? Time to find out.
The Pixel Buds Pro design is an evolution of the 2020 Pixel Buds and 2021 Pixel Buds A-Series designs, both of which had identical snail-shaped buds.
The Pixel Buds Pro lose the hooks for securing the, in place. The shape of the earbuds is now more bulbous and less elegant, likely to house the extra bits of hardware needed to enable the ANC features. It doesn’t look all that different, however, when it’s inside your ears.
Like the Pixel Buds 2020 (and the A-series), the Pixel Buds Pro only feature color on the circular part facing outside. You can choose from Coral, Fog, Charcoal, and Lemongrass. The rest of the earbuds remain black.
The outside of the earbud has lots of little grilles and ports. There are two grilles for the microphone and a port on the bottom for venting the driver. On the back side are the contacts for the charging case. Hidden below is the optical sensor for in-ear detection.
The charging case is finished in matte white plastic regardless of the color of the earbuds. The outer surface has a wonderfully smooth texture that almost feels like ceramic. Inside, the case has a matte black finish again with a really nice texture. The edges of the lid are perfectly polished and the hinge has very little play. The lid also stays in place when open and doesn’t threaten to snap shut while you are trying to pull the earbuds out.
The overall build quality and feel of the case are top-notch. Little details like the reassuring heft, the solid thunk of the lid opening and closing, and the soft glow of the white status LED through the plastic on the front convey that a lot of thought went into designing the case even though it looks similar to many other models on the market. Having tested most of those, I can say very few look and feel as good in the hand.
The earbuds’ build is nothing special. In fact, I was quite disappointed by how easy it is for them to look dirty after being in contact with skin oils, which for a product designed to sit inside your ears isn’t very well thought out. The Charcoal model also makes this rather easy to notice. They are also annoyingly difficult to pull out of the case and the small, rounded design makes them fiddly to place inside your ears, especially with sausage fingers.
The good thing is that both the earbuds and the case have some level of water resistance. The earbuds are IPX4 rated while the case is IPX2. Neither will survive being dipped in water but minor splashes, rain, or sweat should pose no problems.
Based on personal experience, the Pixel Buds Pro were comfortable to use. They have a relatively small design that should fit most people unless you have particularly small ears.
The bundled silicone tips are soft and pliant. There are three sizes, with the middle one being applied by default. The ear tips don’t go too deep inside your ears and sit just a few millimeters in. The ear tips are extremely pliant and as a result, tend to turn inside out from friction almost every time you pull them out of your ears.
In practice, the Pixel Buds Pro feel no different to wear than most other well-designed pair of earbuds. I was able to wear them for extended periods of time but as always, your mileage may vary.
The Pixel Buds Pro have a straightforward pairing process. The buds automatically go into pairing mode the first time you open them. Subsequently, you can press and hold the button on the back of the case to enable pairing mode. Google Fast Pair is also supported on Android devices.
Once paired, you can install the optional Pixel Buds app to access additional functions. This app is only available on Android, so the limited functionality it does offer is not available on other platforms. If you are using a Pixel phone, then you do not need to install anything as the functionality is built into a system-level app.
Through the app, you can set up the Google Assistant feature to work hands-free with the earbuds, enable Find device, customize the touch controls, enable the Volume EQ feature, check for ear tip seal, and update the firmware. Multipoint and audio switching can also be configured.
The touch controls have limited customizability. The only action that’s configurable is touch and hold, with all others being locked to what’s set by default. You can also disable all of them or none at all. The gestures work well and are followed by a quick, reassuring bleep.
The ANC modes can be changed from the app but they can also be toggled through the touch gestures on the earbuds themselves. You can configure which toggles are available for the gestures.
An interesting feature here is Volume EQ. This boosts the bass and treble response when listening at lower volumes. It gradually increases in effectiveness as you go down in volume, becoming especially noticeable below 30%. Above 50% or so it does not make much of a difference and at higher volumes, it doesn’t do anything.
A useful feature to have is multipoint, which lets you pair the earbuds to two devices at the same time. Using the audio switching feature, the earbuds can also switch automatically between the two if you’re listening to music on one and get a call on the other.
Unfortunately, the Pixel Buds Pro had some notable software issues during my testing. The first issue was with the pressure relief feature. Google claims to actively measure the pressure inside the ear canal and relieve it, presumably using magic as the company never disclosed how the system works.
Turns out, the system isn’t without its issues. There were times when putting the earbuds on caused the pressure relief system to trip and do weird things with the sound. It seems there is a wrong way to insert the earbuds; if you insert them too far in or press and turn them too much then the pressure relief system freaks out. The resultant sound is like trying to hear things underwater. And you can tell it’s the software freaking out and not your ears as the sound often goes back and forth as the system continues to figure out what to do.
The other issue was with the active noise canceling system. At one point the system just broke, where the ANC on mode started playing outside sounds through the speakers, but only in certain parts of the frequency range. This sounded different from the transparency mode, which worked fine but did make the ANC mode unusable.
The ANC occasionally tends to just break in one ear momentarily and then fixes itself. Other times the sound itself just does weird things with the stereo effect only to go back to normal a second later.
Most of these issues either fix themselves or can be fixed by placing the earbuds inside the case. However, the aforementioned issue with the broken ANC required a full factory reset to fix it.
I also noticed that the Pixel Buds app was slow to load at times. The app itself opens fine but several of the options within the app that are specific to the Pixel Buds Pro can take a second or two to load. There was a time when the options just refused to load and the app had to be restarted a few times.
While the Pixel Buds Pro are still relatively new, they aren’t so new that they would have such basic software issues, especially since they have already received a couple of software updates since their launch. I’ve tested plenty of much cheaper earbuds that had zero issues even before their official release from companies with far less experience and resources than Google.
The Pixel Buds Pro have a single 11mm dynamic driver. They support Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity with SBC and AAC codecs.
The Pixel Buds Pro have a fairly typical V-shaped sound that seems like a close match for the Harman in-ear target.
Starting with the low-end, the Pixel Buds Pro have a strong emphasis in the sub-bass and mid-bass region. Bass notes have a deep, palpable rumble and thump to them. There does seem to be some care taken to ensure the bass does not spill into the lower mids and the bass itself never gets overbearing and boomy. As far as bass boosts go, this is fairly tasteful in its execution.
On the other end of the frequency spectrum, the treble performance is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the Pixel Buds Pro are quite bright in the upper mids, lower-treble range, which can make vocals, especially female ones shrill and shouty at times. Beyond that, the sound does roll off quite a bit, which results in the high treble notes sounding muted, which blunts some of the ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds. While this region is usually not dominated by a lot of sounds, a muted top end sucks the life out of the lower treble sounds and makes them a bit muddy.
Mid-range performance is mostly quite good. Instruments and male vocals have a decent timbre and tonal balance. The mids do, however, take a bit of a back seat to the bass and treble regions, which are much more aggressive in their delivery. And since we mostly tend to adjust our volume for the more prominent sounds, which in this case would be the bass or upper mid-range, the rest of the mid-range tends to sound quieter and pushed a bit back into the mix.
Detail and resolution are somewhat lacking, either due to the choice of codecs, the audio processing, or the drivers. The honky upper mid-range creates an illusion of more detail but it merely enhances the existing detail and the lack of a good high-end response makes the sound a bit dull in places. It also affects imaging and soundstaging, neither of which is remarkable in any way.
Compared to the Sony WF-1000XM4, the Pixel Buds Pro have a more emphasized bass and upper mid-range. This causes them to sound more exciting while the Sony have a more laid-back tuning that comes across as a bit more balanced in comparison. Based on your preferences, you may like one more than the other although neither is technically superior.
Overall, despite the Pro in the name, the sound of the Pixel Buds Pro is very mainstream. The average person should be perfectly happy with it while a seasoned audiophile should find it inoffensive enough for travel or outdoor use. I personally tend to stick to my collection of wired IEMs but was reasonably happy using the Pixel Buds Pro while I was out for a walk as the sound quality was good enough for that purpose.
The Pixel Buds Pro have okay microphone performance. The voice sounds a bit garbled even when there is little to no background noise. When it’s particularly loud around, the noise comes through but the voice remains audible and in focus.
The overall microphone quality is adequate for short calls but it’s not a strong feature of these earbuds and should not be your priority for voice calls.
The Pixel Buds Pro feature active noise cancellation using a dedicated custom processor. There is also a transparency mode included, which has become the norm these days.
The ANC performance was fine but underwhelming compared to the best in the business. The Pixel Buds Pro can get rid of most of the low-frequency hum but higher frequency sounds can still seep in at times.
The transparency mode was also not very good. The sound has a natural tonality to it and doesn’t sound as robotic as some other products on the market. At the same time, the sound is very dull and muted, which makes things sound hazy and indistinct.
The ANC mode also has a problem where it can inject some of its own noise into the mix. When toggling it on and off in a very quiet environment, the ANC on mode has a higher noise floor than ANC off, as the ANC adds some high-frequency hiss when enabled. This is not audible when literally anything is playing but is noticeable when it’s quiet.
Compared to the Sony WF-1000XM4, the Pixel Buds Pro do worse. The Sony have vastly superior ANC performance and decent transparency mode. They also have no weird background noise issues. Moreover, they had none of the software issues I faced with the ANC on the Pixel Buds Pro.
The Pixel Buds Pro have mostly good latency performance for watching video content. They tend to sync well right off the bat when the video starts and unless you mess around things stay that way. However, doing things like changing the video resolution in the YouTube app or adjusting the playback position can cause the sync to go out of whack, and it takes several seconds before it can correct itself.
As usual, I would not recommend Bluetooth earbuds for gaming, unless it’s strictly casual. The Pixel Buds Pro also don’t have any low latency mode for gaming.
Despite their myriad software issues, the Pixel Buds Pro maintained a stable connection to the source device at all times and there were no connection dropouts observed during testing.
Multipoint functionality also worked as expected, with both source devices remaining connected with the earbuds and the earbuds automatically managing the source device for audio and calls.
The Pixel Buds Pro have a claimed battery life of 7 hours with ANC enabled and 11 hours with ANC disabled. Google also claims that 5 minutes of charging can provide 1 hour of playback with ANC and 15 minutes of charging can provide 3 hours of playback with ANC.
In my testing, the Pixel Buds Pro played for an impressive 8 hours 15 minutes with ANC. With ANC disabled, they played for an outstanding 13 hours.
The 5-minute charge provided 1 hour 17 minutes of playback while the 15-minute charge provided 3 hours 22 minutes of playback.
The Pixel Buds Pro are priced at $199. For that price, they are competing against the Sony WF-1000XM4 and the newly launched Samsung Galaxy Buds2 Pro. Both of those cost a bit more at $230 but both also have previous generation models that cost significantly less these days and have a similar feature set.
The Pixel Buds Pro have a few things going for them. I liked how well the case is designed and built. The audio quality is good enough for the average user and on par with the best that is available among wireless earbuds. And the battery life is excellent.
On the other hand, the active noise canceling and transparency mode performance is above average at best. The microphone quality is also nothing to call home about. The earbud design is a bit fiddly and hard to get out of the case and place inside your ears.
But by far the worst thing about the Pixel Buds Pro is the current state of the software, which presents a variety of problems on a daily basis and the longer I use them the more issues seem to crop up. Coming from a software giant, this is inexcusable.
The good thing is that many of the issues can be fixed through software updates while also improving performance along the way. But until that happens, I would recommend going with the WF-1000XM4 or even the older Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, which are heavily discounted these days.